Between Freedom and Belonging: Ignatieff and Berlin on Nationalism

By Ipperciel, Donald; Woo, Jennifer | British Journal of Canadian Studies, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Between Freedom and Belonging: Ignatieff and Berlin on Nationalism


Ipperciel, Donald, Woo, Jennifer, British Journal of Canadian Studies


This article aims to make sense of the apparent incoherencies in Michael Ignatieff's theory of nationalism by first considering how he interprets his mentor's theory of nationalism. Ignatieff was greatly influenced by Isaiah Berlin in his writings on liberalism and nationalism, to the point of mirroring some of his inconsistencies. The resulting discrepancies in the two men's theories arise from a certain tension between liberalism and nationalism that has induced them both to define the latter in terms reflecting the integrity of the former. Understanding Ignatieff's interpretation of Berlin's ideas makes apparent that, in his own work, he draws on Berlin's use of empathy as a method, and on his rejection of violence as a criterion, in distinguishing between fundamental types of nationalism.

THERE HAS BEEN, IN CANADA, renewed interest in Michael Ignatieff 's thought ever since he entered federal politics in 2005 and especially since his nomination as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in December 2008. Being those of an academic recently turned politician, his ideas now carry particular weight - they could conceivably inspire laws, policies or guiding principles of government. However, because Ignatieff has spent most of his adult life outside Canada, chiefly in the United Kingdom and the United States, he has been until recently a relative unknown in his native country. Little wonder, then, that Canadians are eager to learn more about him. Newspapers in particular have made important efforts to shed light on his political positions. This article seeks to extend these efforts to an academic level. This is appropriate since, although Ignatieff has spent the greater part of his life as a journalist and public intellectual, he has always maintained ties to academia.

In past scholarly studies dedicated to Ignatieff 's thought, emphasis has been placed on his writings on human rights or his defence of a doctrine of foreign military interventionism and imperialism (cf. inter alia Parekh 2007; Smith 2006; Morgan 2006; Long 2006; Schaefer 2005). In this study, we wish to focus on another of his important fields of investigation, namely the question of nationalism. Ignatieff 's views on nationalism appear sometimes contradictory, or at best ambiguous, in his work. We believe that sense can be made of his seemingly antagonistic positions by considering them beside the works of one of his greatest influences on the question of nationalism, his mentor, Isaiah Berlin. The Oxford philosopher's impact on Ignatieff in this respect cannot be overstated: Berlin is, in his words, the person whom, 'next to [his] father, [he] love[d] most dearly and [who has had] the greatest effect on [his] thinking' (Diebel 2008). Ignatieff refers to him as his 'old master' (2000c: 2), he was his biographer (1998a), and he cites him in his work more often than any other scholar.1 In many regards, the ambiguities in Ignatieff 's work are a reflection of Berlin's, to the extent that gaining an understanding of Berlin's theory of nationalism is essential for the understanding of Ignatieff's views on the question.

In the first section of this article, a preliminary account of Ignatieff 's thought on nationalism will be spelled out with particular emphasis on the apparent contradictions or tensions that it harbours. These contradictions will however be left temporarily unresolved. In the following section, Berlin's thought on nationalism will be shown to involve similar tensions to those found in Ignatieff 's writings on the same subject. Obviously, the entire complexity of Berlin's theory of nationalism cannot be captured in a few pages. Hence, the purpose of this section is not to break new ground in interpreting Berlin, but to focus on specific aspects of his thought that will contribute to a better understanding of Ignatieff's thought on nationalism. Next, since influences are never direct but rather altered by the prism of one's own subjectivity, we will seek in the third section to piece together Ignatieff's own understanding of Berlin's thought on nationalism and examine how he has attempted to resolve its incoherencies.

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